Softball gets NCAA bid, Fresno up next

Michael Dougherty

After Saturday’s loss to Michigan, which eliminated the Gophers softball team from the Big Ten tournament, head coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien wanted only one thing.
“I really want to believe that we’re going to be on the road next Thursday,” she said, “going somewhere warm and sunny.”
Bernstein-O’Brien’s wish came true, as her squad earned an at-large bid to Region Seven of the NCAA Tournament in Fresno, Calif.
The Gophers (46-19 overall) will face top-seeded Fresno State (45-10) Friday at 9:30 p.m. (Twin Cities time). The four-team region also includes California and Cal State-Northridge. The tournament runs through Sunday.
The team gathered at the Williams Arena Club Room for the live announcement at 8 p.m. on Sunday. Minnesota was the 28th team of the 32 team field to be announced, leading to some tense moments as the names were read at an agonizingly slow pace. But when their name was called, the Gophers leapt from their seats in jubilation.
“I wasn’t nervous all day,” senior pitcher Wendy Logue said, “not until I talked to (Bernstein-O’Brien) at 5:30. Then, when it got to the seventh region, I thought our season was done. I really did, to be honest with you.”
Bernstein-O’Brien is a self-described realist, so when she took a closer look at the 16 at-large bids, she began to question her team’s chances. But all of that changed once the teams were announced.
“I’m just glad we’re in,” she said. “I started looking at some of the teams and their records, and started thinking there’s no way that we wouldn’t have been in there.”
The Gophers were one of three Big Ten teams to make the tournament. They’ll join Big Ten champion Michigan and runner-up Iowa.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said on Saturday she didn’t think the Gophers would make the field, but Bernstein-O’Brien said she knew all the hard work her team put in this weekend would pay off.
“We had 46 wins, so we should be one of the 32 best teams in the nation,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “It would have been hard to keep us home.”
Women’s athletics director Chris Voelz was also on hand to watch the selection. Earlier in the evening, she unveiled plans for the refurbished Bierman Softball Complex.
“Oh, how exciting,” Voelz said. “We were a bubble team, and I think it’s great for them to earn their way in like that.”
Logue said the key to the team’s bid was their 6-0 win over Northwestern Saturday in the Big Ten tournament.
The Wildcats had been ranked fifth in the final regional rankings last week, while Minnesota was ranked sixth.
“That was a huge win,” Logue said. “If we wouldn’t have beat them, we wouldn’t be going on this weekend.”
Wildcats coach Sharon Drysdale said she thought her team deserved to go, but admitted the Gophers win would likely knock them out.
The crowds at Bulldog Diamond in Fresno, Calif., are expected to reach 6,000. But Bernstein-O’Brien said she can’t wait.
“For these women, it will be the best experience for the College World Series,” she said. “It’s like a major league ball park.”
The winner of the regional tournament goes on to compete in the Women’s College World Series May 19-29.
“College World Series,” senior third baseman Amber Hegland said. “We’re not stopping until we get there.”
ù The cost of the softball complex project is estimated at $2 million, and will be shared equally by an unnamed donor and the State of Minnesota.
Voelz said the renovations will include an elaborate locker room facility and training rooms, as well as seating for over 1,000 fans.
“We’re thrilled about the stadium,” Voelz said. “Now we’ll compete with places like Fresno State, like Texas and like Florida — places and people that have really made a huge commitment to this sport.”